As a U.S. Army veteran, two-time Top Tech finalist and technician with more than 25 years of experience under his tool belt, Michael Johnson is a model of integrity, grit and determination.
As part of Cox's celebration of Black History Month and the amazing individuals in our organization, we recently sat down with Michael for an interview so we could share his inspiring story with you. Keep reading to get to know the gifted man behind the uniform, his lessons learned from life in the military, the importance of family, and perspectives on how to forge a bright path for your future self.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get your start as a technician?
I’ve always been mechanically inclined, and I love working with my hands. I learned basic mechanic skills by working on cars, trucks, and bikes as a kid. I remember when I was nine years old, I started working on bikes and helping my dad work on his cars. While dismantling a 1964 Buick Skylark, he handed me a cross tip screwdriver and told me to remove the taillights. From that moment, my destiny was sealed! By 13, I was pulling and installing engines. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to learn mechanics, because growing up, academia wasn’t my strong suit. I didn’t do great in school but excelled after with hands-on roles (I’m hopeful future generations have access to other learning styles with more emphasis on the value of technical skillsets!).
One afternoon when I was 17, I was finishing a water pump job on my 1979 Malibu Classic when an Army recruiter came to our house to talk about me enlisting. That moment propelled the rest of my career! I joined the military as a Bradley Fighting Vehicle mechanic – basically a tank mechanic. After basic training in Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, I was deployed to Germany and Kosovo, then stationed in Ft. Irwin California. I later moved to Ft. Benning in Columbus, Georgia before another deployment to Kosovo and then to Iraq. I ended up serving a little over six years.
Even after leaving the military, I didn’t venture too far! I worked as a government contractor for over a decade servicing military vehicles and equipment. I actually went to Afghanistan in 2008, where my work was aimed at helping the soldiers get home safely.
I came home in 2013 and started working at Ryder, where learned commercial transportation side. Ryder was the perfect vehicle to grow my skillset with great manufacturer training – I was able to access to online training with every OEM in the industry. I busted my butt, and after two and a half years had the top skill level for techs in the company. I spent my last couple of years there moving to leadership side of Ryder. Loved working on trucks, even as a civilian.
All of that led me to Cox Automotive Mobility Fleet Services – I’ve been here for more than two years now.
Thank you for your service in the U.S. Army. Along with the technical skills you gained, can you share about lessons learned and how that shaped who you are today?
I often joke and say I grew up in the military, as my dad was a Vietnam veteran. So, the values of integrity, grit, determination and respect were part of my upbringing. I joined the U.S. Army when I was 17 and got out when I was 24 – they were some of the best years of my life. I went in a boy and came out a man (with a mustache!). I learned a lot, but one memory in particular comes to mind. My sergeant in the military – Sergeant Opher, I’ll never forget him – he said something so simple. It has stuck with me ever since and changed the way I think of leadership: “When you’re in charge, take charge.” This was so impactful to me, because in my younger years I was very timid and quiet. I realized I needed to speak up for myself, to vocalize what I need. As a leader, you have to learn how to take charge. How to form a team and lead them to success – that responsibility is on you.
Another thing I learned from the military: Refuse to be stuck. If you hit an obstacle – whether on the job or in life – find a way to move past it. For example, I suffer from PTSD and can sometimes be snappy with my kids when things get hectic, or I just need a bit of quiet time. I work through it with therapy and mentorship in other areas, but it’s something I have to continue to overcome. There are things you can’t shy away from – you have to take control and hit it head on.
Who have been your role models and what have you learned from them?
I have several! I mentioned my dad earlier. As a man, I look up to him. I love him. He passed away a couple of years ago, but he continues to be a powerful and inspirational figure in my life. He gave me my first toolset and introduced me to mechanics. He even gave me my first knife, which was a Case – like the one I was given my first year competing at Top Tech. I owe pretty much everything I do to him. He – along with my mom of course – shaped me into who I am.
My dad is the reason I joined the military. Going in, I knew that if I wasn’t going to do anything else, I was had to make sergeant, and I did. My dad loved calling me Sergeant Mike after that! It meant a lot to me to make him so proud.
I also mentioned my kids – they help mentor me as a father, too! I look at them and what they need from me – I try to live up to the dad they deserve. Same thing with my wife and to be the husband she deserves.
Workwise, one of my former supervisors with Ryder comes to mind. He was younger than me, but more experience. He was unafraid! He’d take something apart, leave it wide open and throw me into. It forced me to not be afraid, to fix it and solve the issue. That ended up giving me a lot of confidence as a technician while gaining a lot of new skills, too.
Last, and I know this may make me sound crazy…but I’ve been taking a lot of advice lately from the guy I want to become – my future self, if you will. I often ask myself, “Is this going to get me where I want to be?” I use the answer to help guide me where I need to go. It brings me a lot of clarity when making decisions and keeps me on the right track.
‘Your Trusted Partner’ has become the mantra for Fleet Services and our technicians. How do you show up as the trusted partner for your clients?
The answer is actually in the question…it’s a matter of showing up. And how you show up. I strive to be personable, listen, attend to clients’ needs and perhaps most importantly, do the job right. People know when they are being gaslit or take advantage of. Working with integrity is key. Do what you say you’ll do when you say you’ll do it. If you run into issues, be transparent about the situation. It’s about effective communication and delivery of quality service. When clients get their keys and drive off, I’m happy knowing that I got them up and running, and that I’m helping keep the roads safe.
You mentioned being a “technician’s tech” and have proven yourself as a successful member of the team. What advice would you give to other techs looking to grow their career?
I’ll simply say this: Stay hungry! You can be very successful in this industry if you’re hungry enough to put in the time to learn and do more than the average person. If you enjoy the euphoria of accomplishment and want to feel it regularly, it’s here. Life is too short to put limits on yourself. My best advice to other techs in the field is to continue to learn and grow…then get uncomfortable so you can keep learning and growing! And like I just shared; you have to do work the right way. If you take a shortcut, you or someone else will pay for it later – treat those trucks like your family has to ride next to them…because they just might. Get as much training as you can, then go get some more after that. You’ll need it one day! Take advantage of everything you have access to and go out and find ways to access what you don’t.
Now, let’s chat about life outside of work – what hobbies do you enjoy?
You bet! I’m a big family guy. We live here in Ft. Pierce, FL, where I was born and raised. Everyone’s name in my immediate family starts with the letter ‘M’. First there’s my wife, Marckdaline or “Marcky.” Then there’s my son Micah (13), daughter Micaiah (5) and baby girl, Miracle (2).
I come from a musical family, and everyone in my family is musically inclined – it’s in our blood! I play the drums, keys, bass, wind instruments, trombone. My mom plays the piano, and my dad could sing. We like to play music at home and have keyboards in the house, even an acoustic guitar. As an aside, my mom was a cosmetologist and taught me how to cut hair when I was 11. I became a licensed barber after the military (if you can’t tell by now, I really do love working with my hands!).
Even though I’m a technician by trade, it’s my thing outside of work, too. I enjoy working on cars, trucks, bikes, am a welder and I keep my hands full with projects. Currently I have a 1969 Plymouth Valiant, 1979 Chevy Malibu and 1979 Pontiac Firebird that I’m working on. It keeps me dreaming, thinking about what each car can be.
Aside from that I like physical activity – playing basketball and working out at the gym. Saltwater fishing has become one of my favorite things to do! We live on the coast, and I can’t pass by a body of water without wondering what’s in there. Although I certainly don’t have sea legs! At some point I’d like to go deer hunting, too.
It sounds like you have a very close-knit family! What family memories or traditions are special to you?
A tradition that comes to mind for me I think is universally held – coming together around food! It’s special to have generations of family members get together. My dad loved to grill, and even built his own smoker. He was known for his ribs, brisket, and BBQ sides. Every holiday and every other opportunity he had for us to get together; he’d cook out. You could say cooking runs in our family’s blood, too. My brother is a chef, my sister likes to bake, mom would always have something going in the kitchen. Her German chocolate cake and red velvet cake are some of my favorites. I’m grateful to have all these memories and look forward to continuing these same traditions with my family.